David Mitchell Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

David Mitchell
Photo: Paul Stuart

David Mitchell

An interview with David Mitchell

In two separate pieces David Mitchell explains why he "didn't set out to write a historical novel just for the heck of it" and talks about his first novel, Ghostwritten, revealing some of the real-life people who inspired his characters.

In two separate pieces David Mitchell explains why he "didn't set out to write a historical novel just for the heck of it" and talks about his first novel, Ghostwritten, revealing some of the real-life people who inspired his characters.

An Essay by David Mitchell
"I didn't set out to write a historical novel just for the heck of it–you'd have to be mad."

Around Christmas in 1994 in Nagasaki I got off at a wrong tram-stop and stumbled upon a greenish moat and cluster of warehouses from an earlier century. This was my first encounter with Dejima, the Dutch East India Company's furthest-flung trading "factory" and its most exclusive bragging point: during the two and a half centuries of Japan's isolation, this man-made island in Nagasaki harbor, no bigger than Trafalgar Square, was the sole point of contact with the West. Dejima went to seed after the Japanese opened up other ports to international trade from the 1850s onwards, but a full-scale reconstruction is now underway. (No mean feat of engineering, this—reclamation projects have pushed the shoreline hundreds of yards away.) Back in 1994 I wasn't a published writer, but the place crackled with fictional potential, and twelve years later I began to reconstruct Dejima myself in a book now published as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I didn't set out to write a historical novel just for the heck of it—you'd have to be mad. Rather, only within this genre could the book be written. This being my first, I read a number of others to avoid reinventing wheels. Small hope, but my reading led me to a new respect for a genre which too often gets associated with blue-rinses and rags-to-riches family sagas.

Why, then, the enduring popularity of historical fiction? One reason is that it delivers a stereo narrative: from one speaker comes the treble of the novel's own plot while the other speaker plays the bass of history's plot. A second reason is genealogical: if History is the family tree of Now, a historical novel (such as Alex Haley's Roots) may illuminate the contemporary world in ways that straight history may not. The novel's Ace of Spades is subjective experience, which is a merit or demerit depending on how the card is played and who you are—Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind can be either a sublime evocation or a toxic travesty. A third reason for the genre's popularity is simply that while the needs of the human heart and body stay much the same, the societies they must live in vary dramatically between centuries and cultures, and to watch people live—people whom we might have been had we been born then—under different regimes and rules is fascinating for its own sake.

And why write a historical novel? Writers' motives are as varied as criminals', but I suspect that the historical novelist's genetic code contains the geeky genes of the model-maker – there is pleasure to be had in the painstaking reconstruction of a lost world. A second reason is banal but overlooked: a novel must be set both somewhere and "somewhen", and the choice is restricted to the present, the future and the past. A third motive is the challenge (and perverse pleasure) of tackling the pitfalls, foremost of which is research. Filmmakers ruefully observe how, with each decade back in time a film is set, x million dollars gets added to production costs. The same principle applies in novel-writing, but instead of dollars, read "months." The historical novelist must learn how the vast gamut of human needs was met in the "destination period": how were rooms lit and heated? How were meals prepared, clothes made, bodies bathed (or not), feet shod, distances covered, transgressions punished, illnesses explained, courtships conducted, contraception considered, divinities worshiped and corpses disposed of? My allotted 1500 words could be swallowed by this list, and I would still be scratching the surface. The more Moleskines you fill with the fruits of research, however, the more determinedly it must be hidden: lines like "shall I bid Jenkins ready the Phaeton coach, or might Madam prefer the two-wheeled barouche landau?" will kill.

And then you have to worry about language. Unless you have an entire historical novel made out of reported speech (easier to digest Bubble-pack) the characters must open their mouths at some point, and when they do, how are they going to speak? This is the "Lest versus In Case Dilemma": the sentence-joint "in case"—as in "Eat now in case we don't have time later"—smells of Late Twentieth Century English, but a "correct" translation into Smollett's English—"Eat on the nonce, My Boy, lest no later opportunity presents itself"—smacks of phoniness and pastiche if written in 2010. It smacks, in fact, of Blackadder, and only a masochist could stomach 500 pages. To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect—I call it "Bygonese"—which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a pine new dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution. Commonly, shall is used more often than will; if-less conditional sentences appear (as in "Had I but seen him, I would have shot him stone dead"); and contractions discouraged by old school headmistresses—like gonna—are avoided. Then, once your Bygonese is perfected, anachronism is waiting to blight it. For every obvious no-no (a feudal castle-builder complaining "Gravity is not on our side") there are slipperier ones waiting to slip through: the editors and proofreaders of my late eighteenth century manuscript found a skip-load. Some were excusable: the verb to con as in "swindle" first appears in print in 1889, says the heaven-sent Etymological Online Dictionary. Others were more embarrassing, like brinksmanship: duh, it's a Cold War term.

Referring to the tyranny of tradition, Jessamyn West, an American Quaker novelist, wrote "Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death above ground… Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free." I don't know about "free" but I like West's grave tone and her word "resurrection": the historical novelist isn't only rifling through the human narrative we call History for raw material. Like it or not, he or she may also end up actually rewriting the past. History is not, after all, what really happened (no one can know, it's gone) but only what we believe happened. I heard Mark Lawson on Front Row call this process "the Oliver Stone Phenomenon", referring to the sizable majority of Americans who believe Stone's film JFK to be an accurate portrayal of a real conspiracy to kill the President (making one worry about Inglorious Basterds, where duty to historical fact is binned and Kick-Ass Jews perpetrate a Tarantino-esque revenge on Adolf Hitler.) Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction's rib-cage: the "historical" half demands fidelity to the past, whilst the "fiction" half requires infidelity— people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated, and the lies of art must be told.

Or perhaps it's just the fantastic costumes.

February 28th, 2011

David Mitchell discusses his first novel, Ghostwritten

How did you choose to plot your novel around the globe?

The first three stories started life as unrelated short stories that I wrote on location. Then when I realized there was narrative potential waiting to be tapped by linking the stories, it made sense to keep the locations on the move. The far-flung locations test-drive this interconnected novel about interconnection more strenuously.

How did you decide which cities your characters would live and collide in or travel to?

I wanted the book to travel East to West because it reverses the usual direction of Orientalism, and challenges the Eurocentric view of the world map, which is never a bad thing. Each of the cities is one cultural step from the last -- so although the west of Ireland is a world away from Tokyo, say, Hong Kong and Tokyo can be found on the same spectrum, as can Hong Kong and Mt Emei in Sichuan, as can Mongolia and China, as can Russia and Mongolia. The itinerary was planned to propel the reader as fast as I could without giving him or her jetlag. Finally, they are all locations that appeal to my imagination. 'Choosing' is not so much a part of writing as the question 'Is this idea/location/word delicious or not?' If it is, you use it.

Have you spent time in each of these locations?

Yes, in the same order as the book. Authentic local color matters. Maybe it's like conjuring or lying -- if you get the smaller details right, you are more likely to be able to pull off the whopping deception -- which in the case of writing is the claim that this fiction the writer made up is in fact perfectly real, so please respond to it on an emotional level. I love travel writing, and Ghostwritten allowed me to indulge a little in this quarter. The one place I haven't been to is New York, which is one reason why the 'Night Train' section never leaves Bat's studio. (It's a nice little irony that Ghostwritten is bringing me to NY in October.)

The Hong Kong trader and the Tokyo nerve gas bomber are recognizable from the headlines of the past few years, is the physicist or the DJ based, however loosely, on a contemporary person?

Not so much, especially in a libel court. However, just between you, me and your readers I did read a biography of the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman for background detail on quantum physicists, and I have a particular admiration for the Jeff Bridges character in 'The Fisher King.' A friend asked me if there was a Howard Stern connection, but the guy is so scary I wouldn't dare.

Would you say your characters are strictly entrepreneurial in their conduct in at least one area of their life such as the way they are raised, their professional demeanor/activity, or their romantic lives?

Good question, but I'm not sure I agree 100% -- Quasar the cultist sloughed off his old life to be free from the responsibility of free will -- sort of brushing off the fruit of forbidden knowledge and trying to hang it on the tree. (Although, from the outside, that might look entrepreneurial.) Zookeeper is acting on pre-programmed laws - he enlists Bat to be entrepreneurial on his behalf only when the laws conflict. And the tea shack old lady is a virtual slave of history. Still, I'd concede the point for the others, and say simply that it's easier to write plots for people when their will is the co-pilot of their destiny.

They each experience close calls with a criminal element and/ or brushes with death.

Yes, you're right: I hadn't really noticed. A trick to writing a compelling narrative is so simple it's often overlooked: invent a character the reader likes and make nasty or dangerous things happen to him or her (the character not the reader) Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Molder and Scully, Huckleberry Finn, Agent Cooper. Similarly, plot possibilities swarm around criminal elements like bees around a hive. As a fairly law-abiding citizen living in a highly law-abiding country, I suppose I am drawn to the [cue Peter Cushing voice] dark side, but I'm not alone in this -- look at what's on TV tonight.

They also all connect with an immaterial power that is usually perceived as personally beneficent if hostile to the enemy--the tree, the extraterrestrial world, Serendipity, the little girl ghost, etc.

My answer is prosaic, but I like ghost stories, and I'm interested in taking them to bits and putting them together again and in the borderline between objective reality and whatever is beyond - insanity, New Age hokey pokey flimflam, the supernatural, entities way out of our reality-league. And for writers, this is a narrative gold mine.

Is there anything you would like to tell Bold Type?

I would just like to thank all your readers who have taken the time out to read my book, and I hope that they feel, on balance, it was worth the hours of their lives that it cost. Writing is a strange business transaction, which occurs largely between the imaginations of complete strangers who will stay complete strangers, but I enjoyed writing the book a lot and if it brought any of your readers a bit of pleasure then, well, great.

Interview by Catherine McWeeney, 2001. First published in Bold Type. Reproduced by permission of Random House publishing.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Utopia Avenue jacket Slade House jacket The Bone Clocks jacket The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet jacket
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